The U.S. Department of Energy is contesting most of the $110,000 fine levied by the state for a May explosion at a plutonium processing plant.
The issue is the definition of the chemicals that exploded in a tank at the Plutonium Finishing Plant.
The state Department of Ecology claims the chemicals were wastes. The Department of Energy says they were usable chemicals.
Up to $70,000 is riding on the classification dispute after the Energy Department filed a petition late Friday seeking the smaller fine.
Two weeks ago, the Ecology Department hit Hanford with the biggest fine in its history after an investigation into the May 14 blast that exposed 10 workers to chemical fumes. The probe revealed numerous safety problems, and several workers said they got sick from the exposure.
The penalty was levied against DOE, lead contractor Fluor Daniel Hanford and B&W; Hanford Co., which manages the former plutonium processing facility.
The explosion happened after nitric acid and hydroxylamine were allowed to evaporate inside a tank until they concentrated into a dangerous mix.
The chemicals were put in the tank in 1993 and were last checked on Oct. 28, 1996. Workers at the plant stopped checking them because they thought the volume of chemicals was too small to be a problem.
That was the basis for the state declaring the chemicals to be wastes and fining Hanford $10,000 a month for the seven months the chemicals sat unchecked.
Another $40,000 in fines were levied for emergency response problems and trouble dealing with the chemical fumes. The Energy Department is not contesting those violations.
Energy Department officials argue the tank’s chemicals were not wastes, but a useful mixture waiting for future applications.
Hanford “had no intent to discard the unused chemical product and planned to use it in preparation for deactivation of the (PFP) to flush pipelines and/or equipment where residual plutonium may be present,” said DOE’s petition.
Roger Stanley of the state Ecology Department said DOE and the state have argued for years over when chemicals become “wastes” at Hanford under state law. The designation kicks into effect more stringent controls.
Steve Moore, the state’s lead investigator into the PFP explosion, said: “They’ve made their argument. Now I need to consider it.”
The state has 30 days to review DOE’s request to trim some or all of the $70,000 portion of the fine.
If Hanford does not like the state’s decision, it can appeal to the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board.